Young conservative star Sebastian Kurz is on track to become Austria’s next Chancellor, and the world’s youngest leader, according to projections of Sunday’s parliamentary election result.
Mr Kurz’s People’s Party (OVP) is in the lead on 30.2 percent, the exit poll suggested, after a campaign dominated by immigration. However, that is well short of a majority, and could result in the party forming an alliance with the far right.
The OVP’s current coalition partner, the Social Democrats, are on 26.3 percent, neck and neck with the far-right Freedom Party (FPO) on 26.8 percent, a projection by pollster SORA said shortly after polls closed, based on an early count of 42 percent of non-postal ballots.
The projection had a margin of error of 2.4 percentage points. It will be refreshed and become more precise as more ballots are counted throughout the evening.
At 31, Mr Kurz is three years younger than North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, and eight years younger than France’s Emmanuel Macron.
The Foreign Minister propelled his party to the top of polls when he became leader in May, dislodging the far-right FPO that had led the polls for a year.
He has pledged to take a hard line on refugees and prevent a repeat of Europe’s migration crisis — a message that has proved popular in Austria, where many voters say the country was overrun after opening its borders in 2015 to hundreds of asylum seekers from the Middle East and elsewhere.
Mr Kurz said he will shut the main migrant routes into Europe, via the Balkans and the Mediterranean. He also plans to cap benefits for refugees at well below the standard level and bar other foreigners from receiving such payments until they have lived in the country for five years.
“We must stop illegal immigration to Austria because otherwise there will be no more order and security,” Mr Kurz told tabloid daily Oesterreich on Friday.
Incumbent Chancellor Christian Kern’s Social Democrats (SPO) are in coalition with the OVP, but Mr Kurz ended that alliance when he took over his party in May, forcing Sunday’s snap election.
Opinion polls showed the conservatives ahead with around a third of the vote and a close race for second between the Social Democrats and the FPO, whose candidate nearly won last year’s presidential election.
That gives the FPO, which currently has a fifth of seats in parliament and is in government in two of Austria’s nine provinces, a good chance of entering a national coalition, with Mr Kurz and Mr Kern at loggerheads.
Mr Kurz has said he wants to shake up Austrian politics, which for decades has been dominated by a coalition between his party and the Social Democrats. His opponents say he is merely a new face on a party in power in various coalitions for 30 years.
Leaders of all three top parties warned voters to be sceptical about polling in a bid to improve turnout.
“You should not pay attention to opinion polls. You should instead go by the atmosphere here,” FPO leader Heinz-Christian Strache told cheering supporters at a shopping mall in Vienna on Saturday.
The FPO has accused Mr Kurz of copying its ideas and Mr Strache called him an “impersonator”. Mr Strache’s FPO wants to shut certain sectors of the economy to non-EU workers, limit the proportion of foreign pupils per classroom and deport foreign convicts to their home countries.
The Social Democrats were hit two weeks ago by a smear scandal that forced their chairman to step down.
“You must … go to your neighbours, go into bars, go to your friends and tell them what is at stake,” Mr Kern told a rally in Vienna on Saturday, calling Mr Kurz a candidate of the rich.
He warned of a repeat of the OVP-FPO coalition in the early 2000s that was marked by financial scandals and street protests.
More than 15 years later, few expect a similar uproar if the FPO did enter government, partly given the rise of similar movements in countries such as France and Germany.
Three smaller parties were polling between four per cent, which is the threshold for entering parliament, and six per cent in opinion polls ahead of the snap election.